Thursday, June 20, 2013

A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar, by Suzanne Joinson

Bloomsbury USA, 2012
370 pp


A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar  follows two very different narratives and several journeys taken by a number of characters who populate this novel. One storyline is composed of journal entries from 1923 and the other set in modern-day London.  The journal entries come from Evangeline English, who along with sister Lizzie and a woman named Millicent, a representative of the Missionary Order of the Steadfast Face, have arrived in Kashgar, a predominantly Muslim area in East Turkestan governed by the Chinese.   The second narrative follows a young woman, Frieda, who, while trying to sort things out with herself, inherits the contents of a stranger's flat and meets up with a Yemeni man who has come to England,   has a steady job and friends until his security is threatened and he has to go on the run.  While I enjoyed the book as a whole, the 1923-based narrative was much more engaging.  When I'd move back into the present-day action,  I had the same sort of residual "cliffhanger" feeling I get when a favorite TV show ends with the promise of answers the next week, and couldn't wait to get back to find out what was happening with the three women in Kashgar.  I read this book in one sitting, unable to move until the outcome of the historical narrative was revealed.

While Millicent and Lizzie have come to convert the locals,  Evangeline (Eva) English has accompanied them, bicycle in tow, to gather material for a cycling guide.  The three have put many miles behind them, and as the novel opens, their journey comes to a stop outside of the walled city of Kashgar. There, in the desert, a young girl is giving birth and the three stop to help. There are other people there, but it is Millicent who delivers the baby with forceps. While the baby lives through the birth, the young mom dies, and the group of bystanders immediately put the blame on the three women. They accuse them of killing the girl and stealing her heart to protect themselves from sandstorms, and of planning to eat the baby.  None of the onlookers wants the baby, and Millicent finds herself accused of murder and witchcraft.  Placed under "house arrest" at first at a Muslim inn and home of a Muslim man and his family, they are soon moved to another house outside the city walls to await funds  from the missionary society to pay off the authorities and escape their fate.  While Eva tends to the baby, Lizzie spends time taking photos; as time moves on, tensions begin to surface within the house. Millicent continues her proselytizing in spite of Eva, who disapproves given their situation; outside events also culminate in tension that will ultimately explode, putting the lives of the women in even greater danger.

Kashgar, along the Silk Road, from

Meanwhile, in the modern day, Frieda is a woman whose mother left at a young age and  who has been involved in an affair with a married man with children. Things had been working out for a while, but her lover is a needy sort and she doesn't want to be responsible for "three little boys' battered hearts." Frieda travels for work, lately finding that the cities she's visiting were
"blending into one... just yet another place that was no longer safe for her to be in, being English, being a woman."
While she's trying to sort things out, she meets Tayeb, a young man from Yemen who for political reasons, can't go home.  He shows up on her doorstep, where she hands him a blanket so he can sleep there; the next day she finds he's drawn a bird, a "swirl of peacock feathers," a drawing of seagulls that become a sunset, and some Arabic writing with an English translation:
"As the great poet says you're afflicted, like me, with a bird's journey."

Eventually the two become friends, and Tayeb's story is revealed along the way.  Frieda also receives a notice that she is the next of kin to a dead woman she doesn't know, and that she'd inherited the contents of  the deceased's apartment. She's given x number of days to clear everything out, and takes Tayeb with her to help her, offering him the apartment for a place to sleep until the authorities take back the keys. What she discovers will not only put her back on the road again, but will also help to piece together and connect both past and present.

The author does an incredible job with the past, and honestly, if the entire book had only focused on the story of Eva, Lizzie and Millicent, I wouldn't have minded at all, and it would have been a most excellent work of historical fiction. There's obviously quite a bit of research that's gone into the making of this novel and in capturing the upheaval of a time and place. Unlike some authors who tend toward information/detail overload in establishing and sustaining a sense of place and time, Ms. Joinson avoids that pitfall so that these sections flow naturally. I was less in love with Frieda's story, although the scenes of her childhood were compelling, as was the reunion between mother and daughter which for me, maybe more than anything else, brought home some of the parallels between the past and present, although in a kind of roundabout way I'm still thinking about. I also enjoyed her writing style and the wide use of bird imagery throughout.  On the flip side, I figured out the big "wow" moment out long before it was revealed, and much like when I read crime fiction and can guess what's going on, it was a bit disappointing.

Overall, A Lady Cyclist's Guide to Kashgar is a good book for casual readers; there is a lot of bird imagery which is not too tough to ponder, and while the past narrative is much more engaging than the present, both come together quite well. My book group is discussing this novel on Tuesday, so it will be interesting to hear my friends' perspective.  Recommended, especially because the 1923 narrative is so very well done.

fiction from the UK


  1. This was a DNF for me, partially because I couldn't stand the contemporary sections. The historical sections were most compelling -- but not enough to get me past Frieda.

    1. My book group just read this in June, and we all had the same thought -- mine was that if the author had left it in the past, I would have really enjoyed it much more. Plus, I saw the big "wow" moment coming way way ahead of time so it sort of killed it.


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